Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

From Declarations To Action

Between the tub thumping from Chirac and the soft glove approach from Clinton, Vaclav Havel points the best way forward for the OSCE.
By Andrei Mironov

The Istanbul summit of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) witnessed a number of approaches to human rights, particularly with respect to the disastrous situation in Chechnya. While the words of U.S. President Bill Clinton represented a gentler approach, the line taken by French President Jacques Chirac indicated a tougher, less vague attitude.


But for me the most honourable came from Czech President Vaclav Havel, whose speech best wrapped the significance of the OSCE, at a point in time when it faces a dramatic surge in conflicts and human rights violations on the European continent and around its immediate borders.


Chirac's position was unequivocal: "There is no security, where there is no democracy," he said. "In this spirit, I propose that, in the future, OSCE membership should be suspended in any country where constitutional order is reversed by the use of force."


Chirac, like other leaders, spoke before the signing of the Charter for European Security and before the text of the Istanbul Summit Declaration was issued. He appeared to be saying that only agreements that could be practically implemented should be signed.


Turning to Chechnya, Chirac while fully accepting the argument of Russia's territorial integrity and its right to battle terrorism, maintained its military campaign would not "permit the realisation of a stable and durable solution."


As we know, Bill Clinton failed to deliver the expected stern rebuke to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. His speech was a lot milder than it might have been. All OSCE members, he said, "want Russia to overcome the scourge of terrorism and lawlessness. We believe Russia has not only the right, but the obligation, to defend its territorial integrity...I think before anyone of us sits in judgement we should be able to answer that question..."


Unfortunately, Clinton's attitude risks lowering the OSCE's standards with respect to human rights since it leaves Moscow with considerable room in interpreting the documents signed here.


The big issue for Russia-- the one that lies behind not only the Chechen crisis, but the majority of ills that have befallen the country in recent years--is the absence of the rule of law. Influential, political and business circles remain steadfastly opposed to the introduction of laws that would help Russia become a truly democratic state.


So far, the meaning of the term ''law'' has been limited to the understanding and the implementation of orders coming from those in authority. There is no understanding of the concept that everyone should be equal before the law.


For this reason, I believe that even the strong anti-Western sentiment that the Russian leadership is displaying at the moment is to a large degree a fight against the introduction of the rule of law. It is a fight to preserve arbitrary and authoritarian power. The anti-Western message is only partly aimed at the West. It is aimed too, primarily even, at Russian society.


The documents agreed upon in Istanbul demonstrated what should be done in order that all of Europe, including Russia, could live under the rule of law. Russia, like Serbia, should not be given any opportunity to pursue a different, lower standard, with respect to human rights.


Article 1 of the Charter for European Security, which was signed at the summit, stipulates that members "are committed to preventing the outbreak of violent conflicts wherever possible."


Point 14 of the article states that "peace and security in our region is best guaranteed by the willingness and ability of each participating State to uphold democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. "


Point 22 states that members reaffirm their commitment to "respect the right to seek asylum and to ensure the international protection of refugees...as well as to facilitate the voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons in dignity and safety... In order to enhance the protection of civilians in times of conflict, we will seek ways of reinforcing the application of international humanitarian law. "


Russia signed this Charter in Istanbul, but the military operation in Chechnya continues and the disastrous refugee situation is worsening.


Despite the fact that virtually every speech by a head of state commented extensively on Chechnya, the Istanbul Summit Declaration contained only a very short and rather vague paragraph on the issue. And that was not particularly strong in relation to human rights and non-binding from a judicial point of view.


Therefore, one could conclude that the OSCE's standards on human rights risk being weakened by the summit. There was no mention of sanctions against Russia nor was there any mention of Moscow being suspended from the OSCE or other international organisations, should her policy in Chechnya remain unaltered.


Did the Istanbul summit demonstrate a failure by the OSCE's to fulfil its mandate and does it indicate that the organisation play an increasingly irrelevant role in the future?


I do not believe so. The bright spot, I think, was summarised in the speech given by Czech President, Vaclav Havel, whose words pointed the way for future action by the OSCE and for all those who believe that the rule of law can be established successfully across Europe.


Havel told the summit that initially, the Helsinki Final Act, signed in 1975 which established the primacy of human rights as a global issue, raised concerns that communist signatories would simply ignore it. However, human rights movements that sprang up in the West and East ''held the communist rulers to their word and began to demand the fulfilment of the accepted commitments.''


Havel concluded that now, as then, ''there still are people who place their faith in our words, take them seriously, trust them and demand that we translate them into action... We must not disappoint all those who believe our words and declarations. We must guard, cultivate and enhance the authority of our words.''


This message should serve as an inspiration, to ensure that the summit's declarations here do not pass into history as hollow words but form the basis for proper action in the weeks and months to come.


Andrei Mironov is a Moscow-based freelance journalist and human rights activist.